Fred Hooper hardly seems like a Swamp Rabbit. He's bent and a bit infirm and moves slowly on a wheeled walker he calls his "horse." But his mind is quick and light, and at 100, he still sparks with edgy energy as he talks. Well-wishers have been throwing him birthday parties here and there in the horse racing world for months. "Horse manure," says the Swamp Rabbit, his pale, pale face absolutely aglow. "That's the secret to my longevity. Manure makes a fella feel young."
He says this while steering a golf cart through a hickory grove on his 912-acre spread in Ocala, Fla. Throughout the estate, from breeding sheds to training gallops, all is immaculately groomed. Flowers abound. Grass is clipped. Stables are clean and freshly painted, masonry pointed and trim, tack in order, hay baled, manure invisible. Hooper, who achieved the century mark on Oct. 6, inspects his cattle, looks in on his broodmares, does a little business. He likes the action. He doesn't want to sit around his house waiting for the Day. He's got too much to do.
Hooper has always been an action guy. He has been a boxer, a schoolteacher, a barber, a carpenter, a riveter, a logger, a potato farmer, a road construction contractor and always a maverick. Currently he is the grandest horseman of them all.
"Fred's the most interesting person I've ever met," says Chuck Tilley, former head of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' Association. "Of course, he's had longer to do things than the rest of us."
Brash and unabashedly unsophisticated, Hooper has been kicking mud in the faces of the gentry ever since winning the 1945 Kentucky Derby with the first thoroughbred he owned. The hundred or so stakes winners he has bred and raised over the last half century have earned more than $50 million. "My horses are like my kids," says Hooper, whose child-rearing methods earned him Eclipse awards as the nation's outstanding breeder in 1975 and '82. "I bring [up] my horses myself. I don't send 'em out to be raised by somebody else."
A breeding pioneer, Hooper turned his back on Kentucky hardboots in the 1950s by leaving the mainstream of American bloodstock. He went abroad for jockeys as well, importing from Panama the exceptional Braulio Baeza, Laffit Pincay Jr. and Jorge Velasquez. Along the way he helped found the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association in 1961, and oversaw the turf course construction as a consultant at Arlington, Gulfstream and Hollywood parks. "I know dirt," Hooper says.
Racing's reigning centenarian values honesty and courage and intelligence and integrity. If he invites you into his kitchen for a bowl of orange-juice-soaked cereal, you know you have passed his stringent, idiosyncratic test of character.
Canniness, however, is the chief virtue of Hooper the Businessman. Way back in 1949 he accepted a challenge from Quintas Roberts, owner of champion quarter horse Stella Moore. Roberts's filly was matched at a quarter mile against Hooper's swift thoroughbred Olympia in an exhibition at Tropical Park in Miami. Each man put up $25,000, winner take all. "People thought I was crazy to let Olympia race a quarter horse at two furlongs," says Hooper, who covered his original bet with $93,000 in side bets. "I knew I was crazy, all right, but Olympia was awful fast, and I thought tie could beat anybody." To the surprise of everyone except Hooper, Olympia lunged out of the gate first, held on to the wire and von by a diminishing head in :22[4/5] "I told Roberts that if he was game, I'd fetch another thoroughbred from my stable," Hooper says. "He said, 'No, thanks. I've got just enough money to get back home.' "
Hooper was a horse trader before he owned his first horse. At 14 the Georgia hayseed bought, broke and sold a truckload of wild mustangs from Montana, turning a tidy profit. At 15 he cleaned up at the state fair, pocketing $5 for riding a motorcycle around the wall of a cycling chamber; $10 for twice decking a prizefighter; and $15 for not letting a bronc buck him. By the age of 18 he had graduated from Molar Barber College in Atlanta and was on the fast track toward the head chair at Crawford's Barber Shop.
When Hooper heard he could get rich growing potatoes in Florida, he borrowed enough cash to buy 40 acres in the Sunshine State. He raked and hoed, hoed and raked—and in three years owned 230 acres. By 1923 his hopes of a spud empire were mashed flat. A potato blight wiped him out in four days. "I was $20,000 in debt," he says. "So I went to my banker and said, 'You're looking at a contractor now.' " Buying heavy equipment on credit, he launched the Hooper Construction Company and began paving roads in Flagler County. "I became known as the Swamp Rabbit," he says. "I'd build roads where no one else dared go." Soon he was building highways, dams, canals, bridges and airfields all over the Southeast.